The Knicks won Game 1 over the Celtics. They lead a playoff series for the first time in over a decade. They did not win the game handsomely, nor did they win it convincingly, but they won it, so this pounding headache and the years taken off our lives are worth it. For me, the final score is not just the only thing that matters, it's an early hint that these Knicks aren't what I feared they might be. The Knicks didn't play their style this afternoon, especially not in the first half. It took them a long, long time to get the ball moving out of pick-and-rolls and Carmelo Anthony face-ups, and it took them just as long to bother Boston on the other end. A game with some hideous stretches came down to second-half adjustments and late-game execution. We've seen none of the above in playoff series this decade, so today felt amazing. I far too vividly recall being haunted by fourth-quarter minutiae following Games 1 and 2 in Boston in 2011. This time around, those little switches flipped the Knicks' way. Let us recap.
New York played an uncharacteristic, deeply worrisome first half. The Boston defense doubled Melo only once he'd committed to a drive and even zoned up on occasion, stifling New York's movement. Save for some lovely small-ball from the second unit, New York's offense devolved into sluggish transition and prolonged efforts to find Melo in the post. After a hot, soupy start to reward that approach, Melo turned cold and unresponsive. By the time he got the ball, Brandon Bass or whoever had bulldozed him 20 feet out and time was winding down. Those shots were going up no matter what. Prolonged stretches with just one point guard and a mutual inability to find Tyson Chandler in the pick-and-roll meant the offense rarely evolved beyond the above. It didn't help that some guys-- perhaps a bit tentative in relatively virgin playoff moments-- refused to cut or make quick decisions off the catch. All we saw was iso, iso, and more iso with misses (18-39) and turnovers (eight) aplenty in the first half.
The Knicks' early defense wasn't so out of character, but it did suck dog ass. The Celtics played action figures with New York's switches, moving defenders at will to create the mismatches they desired. That led to doubles, which led to open jumpers, open driving lanes for Jeff Green, and open back doors for Avery Bradley.
Silly as it may be, halftime felt like a fork in the road to me. Like, for the entire series. If the Knicks couldn't adjust after so plainly failing the first two quarters of a playoff home game, then when could they, ya know? Well, they did adjust. The second half wasn't a clean break from the first half, but it was palpably different. On defense, the Knicks began to switch and rotate deliberately-- not just by default-- and that led to a whole mess o' turnovers. On offense, the ball began to move, both out of Melo's hands and within pick-and-roll sets. Even the offensive fuck-ups felt executive, not tactical. Melo and J.R. Smith each missed some good looks off the catch and the latter missed several entry passes out of the pick-and-roll, but the opportunities were there. New York pulled within three to end the third after falling down by seven earlier.
Everything fell into place in the fourth. The Celtics reverted to botching entry passes and bricking jumpers, no longer sliding to the rim with ease. New York got transition buckets off the turnovers, plus some solid weak-side looks and two highly scrotal crunch-time plays from Melo: a contested jumper to go up seven with just over a minute to go, then a laser entry pass out of a trap to find Kenyon Martin for the last-second dagger. And yeah, like pretty much everyone said in the game thread, holding the Celtics to EIGHT fourth-quarter points (and eight turnovers) helped a whoooole bunch.
And yo, how about Martin and Jason Kidd? How about two players I've despised most of my life keying a Knick playoff victory? Martin played most of the third and the whole fourth in place of the slumping Tyson Chandler. He changed everything. I don't know if Martin was just moving better than Chandler or if the Celtics defended him differently, but he and Raymond Felton finally got the pick-and-roll to work in the second half. Kenyon's rolls consistently earned him finishes, offensive rebounds, or at least an agitated Celtic defense. Kidd, meanwhile, flung his old bones at every even remotely available basketball in sight. His strips, interceptions, and rebounds jacked up New York's possession time. We've talked so much about how the Knicks can win poor shooting games by dominating possession, and Kidd and Martin combined to make much of the difference on that front. So yeah, a couple early 2000s Nets proved pivotal in restoring the Knicks' identity down the stretch of a playoff win. 2013, man.
Contributions like those must have given the Knicks their edge, because when you look down the box score, you see a lot of below-average performances and some outright ghosts. Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith each made some big plays, but both shoot poorly on the evening and neither got to the line or created much. Tyson Chandler looked totally out of sorts, slogging his way through 20 minutes of late rotations and blown box-outs. Chris Copeland, Iman Shumpert, and Steve Novak were all silent; forsaken by New York's creaky offense and their own pangs of hesitance. That leaves us with the aforementioned ex-Nets and Raymond Felton, who I think deserves a special shout-out. Ray put up a typical scoring line (13 on 5-13), though a few of those five were tough makes that helped restart New York's flagging momentum. Felton shone on defense, where he ruined so many mismatches by flapping his way to deflections, and in that late pick-and-roll with Martin. Woodson pushed his penguin to 43 minutes in Pablo Prigioni's absence, and Felton did his damnedest to fill them with joy.
To sum up the mess above: the Knicks won despite getting jarred out of their usual style, and they won by making second-half adjustments. After a couple years of not doing those things ever, that makes me feel all warm inside. They've got a 1-0 lead AND ample room to improve, even if it's just getting Prigioni back and Chandler out of whatever funk he's in. A playoff game is behind us and the Knicks' standing is solid. It's been a while.
We've got two full days to marinate in this win, so there's much more to come.